Neighborhoods of GR: All in a day's work downtown

Welcome to Neighborhoods of GR, an informal series for Grand Rapidians, its visitors, and those considering calling the River City home. Each article in the series will focus on a particular GR neighborhood, will be covered by a resident writer, and will showcase the charm, the history, and diversity of our fair city. This installment comes to us from former Innovation and Jobs Editor John Rumery, who give us a taste of his perspective working downtown GR.
Young professionals, service and government workers, students. There's no comparison to the variety and diversity of working downtown GR. This installment comes to us from former Innovation and Jobs Editor John Rumery, who give us a taste of his perspective working downtown GR.
I fell in love while working downtown.

I met my wife at Tootsie Van Kelly’s (Amway Grand Plaza Hotel) during a company party. That’s a long time ago. Before craft beer, downtown coffee shops, food trucks, Rosa Parks Circle, The GRAM, and, well, you get the point. It was a long time ago.
But love is in the air again.

I’ve fallen in love with working downtown.

After a couple of stints in the ‘burbs, there is no better place in West Michigan I’d rather power up my laptop than downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Yes. That is an outrageous, perhaps foolish claim (it would not be my first foolish claim). Undeniably it is extremely subjective. But humor me and let me make my case with not only my personal experience of working downtown for the last 10 years, but with a little help from my friends and colleagues who also have made the decision to work downtown.

Let’s roll.

Meet my panel of downtown workers.

Alvin (AJ) Hills IV: Has worked downtown for over three years with the City of Grand Rapids

Angelika Lee: Works with Creative Many Michigan. She uses Startgarden as a home base, but also travels frequently and utilizes other spaces for meetings and heads down work. Before Creative Many, she worked with a local marketing agency downtown.

Chris Koens: He is a freelance designer and consultant working from home (in Heritage Hill) since October of last year, but joined the Start Garden co-working space in January.

Holly Young: Works at the Aurikk Brand Movement Group, 35 Oakes St SW, (the Blue 35 building) for two years.

Laura Vaughn: Founder of Blackbird RSVP. Has worked downtown, “off and on” since 2011 and started working at The Factory on Fulton and Ionia. After that worked at Startgarden on Louis St. Currently at Startgarden's newest space at 40 Pearl St.

Michael TerHorst: Vice President at Antares Capital. Works remotely at Startgarden with an employer based in Chicago. Has worked at various co-working locations downtown Grand Rapids for three years.

All of these individuals agreed to short survey about their experiences working downtown. Questions were focused on why downtown is a great place to work and opportunities for improvement. Many of these individuals have worked in other cities throughout the state and country.

After reviewing all the responses to the survey, there were several threads that created common themes: downtown vibe, mobility, constant growth and, to a lesser degree, parking.

Why downtown is a great place to work.

There is an undeniable vibe and energy about working downtown with no small part being the diverse business community. Professionals, students, service workers, creatives, freelancers, and entrepreneurs are downtown everyday. It’s a working class that does not exist in any other part of the region.

“Being part of an emerging downtown area that is great blend of professionals across a wide range of industries, e.g., business, healthcare, technology, research, academics, a surprisingly active entrepreneurship community, and talented creative professionals. It is far different energy, vibe, and mix of people downtown as compared to even five to 10 years ago.” -Michael TerHorst

“I love running into friends and acquaintances downtown. It's nice to be able to have those accidental opportunities to catch up.” -Laura Vaughn

“I enjoy moving around to multiple locations throughout the week to engage a broad network, including many cafes full of young professionals, college students, and creators.” -Angelika Lee

Downtown Grand Rapids is loosely defined from Lyon St. (N) to Wealthy St. (S), Lafayette (E) and the Grand River (W). Whether it’s walking, Uber-ing, or utilizing the DASH system, it is very easy to go from point A to point B in a short amount of time

“I really enjoy the ability to experience several coffee shops, cafes, and happy hour haunts all within a short hike from my desk. There’s an energy about downtown that just isn’t found anywhere else.” Chris Koens

Investing in parking is a cost of building a successful business, but the cost varies. If you park on the street (meters) or used downtown ramps, you could expect to pay between $12 to $20 per day. Monthly parking permits lots and ramps like City and Ellis lots can cost about $50 to $160 per month. The closer you are to the heart of downtown, the more expensive (and scarce!) parking can be; waiting lists exists for many of the prime lots. However, the business opportunities that exist downtown can often be worth the investment.

“I love having a parking spot downtown. The lot I'm in is $150 per month and while that's definitely not cheap, the cost of not having that spot were far greater. Between the time hunting for a place to park, Park Mobile, the parking tickets that resulted from Park Mobile, and the time I was spending on parking logistics instead of growing my business, I was definitely paying more than $150 per month. Having a downtown parking spot is also great for personal reasons. It's really nice to have a guaranteed place to park during ArtPrize and other downtown events and, on occasion, I have used my spot over the weekend when I'm traveling so our street is clear for the snowplows.” -Laura Vaughn

Besides the positive experiences of working downtown, several individuals identified elements with room-for-improvement, such as diversity, access to a grocery and pharmacies, and parking.

Room for improving the downtown working experience

Though there is a diversity of industries downtown, there isn’t always diversity in day-to-day opportunities for everyone. AJ and Holly share their experiences as young professionals working downtown.

“What would make working downtown better for me is an African American owned restaurant. Everyday for lunch people walk the streets of downtown looking for a bite to eat. I love our food options downtown but none represent me or my culture. I want to spend my lunch dining to some smooth jazz or RnB with menu items that speak to me. I know it’s only a matter of time before this happens!” -Alvin (AJ) Hills IV

“It would be great if downtown were more welcoming to people of color. As Grand Rapids is trying to diversify and become more metropolitan, the downtown area still seems very segregated. As a person of color, I am often the only "one" in the room, be it a restaurant, bar, office, etc.” -Holly Young

There are several co-working spaces and coffee shops downtown, but they tend be occupied by a homogenous crowd. A little innovation and rethinking ‘drop-in’ spaces could open the doors for more people to use downtown as a destination to work, according to Angelika Lee.

“If we had more drop-in spaces that supported different kinds of work (collaborative, meetings, solo, creative, etc.), perhaps connected on a common subscription, I would find myself drawn downtown more often. The Office Coffee Shop in Royal Oak comes to mind because it’s designed for cafe and office users who pay as they go. (Imagine that executed with Steelcase’s innovative design.)” -Angelika Lee

Commercial options for groceries and a pharmacy would allow those who work here to be more efficient with their time.

“Other cities have more commercial options downtown that provide quick and convenient solutions for busy people. Examples include full-service pharmacy, better healthy and ready-to-go food options and better grocery options.” -Michael TerHorst

Parking availability and accessibility is also concern. Public transit can be great but if you are constantly on the move for meetings beyond downtown, or have a young family that needs to be picked up and dropped off, downtown parking can be expensive and a bit frustrating. In a recent Grand Rapids Chamber survey, as a barrier to business growth, parking availability was listed as a top-three priority with 28 percent of respondents listing it as a top concern. Unfortunately, no easy fix is on the horizon.

“Working downtown was certainly simpler when parking was provided by my employer. Downtown is accessible for me in the spring and fall when I can easily walk down. In light of this deterrence, I think some coordinated incentives and smartly designed spaces could draw me to downtown as a home base more often.” -Angelika Lee

“Working downtown would be a better experience if there where more parking options. I am not always clear on when meters are enforced or not, and the duration of meters (some are 30 mins, one hour, two hours, four hours). Better signage would be helpful. I do appreciate the Park Mobile app.” -Holly Young

Finally, this story wouldn’t be complete without my own handy guide to working downtown.

JR’s personal guide to making the most of working downtown:

Team building exercise: Jump on the DASH and head over to the Downtown Market for dessert or a coffee at Madcap.

Need to clear your mind? Surround yourself with books. Take a short break and walk over to the Grand Rapids Public Library.

The greatest day ever (short lunch): Only available in the summer and requires a sunny day. Daddy Pete’s food truck on Calder Plaza or Rosa Parks Circle. Best BBQ in the city.

The greatest day ever (extended lunch): Haircut at Foremost. Flint Dog and fries at One Stop Coney. Coffee at Pa Latte. Cigar at Grand River Cigar Lounge.

Best place for a morning meeting: The Lantern is the most meeting conducive coffee shop in the city. Big tables to spread out your notes and laptops. Great scones.

Best carrot cake: The Grand Central Market & Deli. No contenders.

Parking hack: Find free street parking near DASH lots and get on board.

Best place to buy last minute, unique gifts: All Tied Up by Pat, 6.25 Paper Studio, and Vault of Midnight.

Best places for a premium caffeine fix: Ferris Downtown and MadCap coffee.

For a laugh: Watch people parallel park from the Start Garden offices, overlooking Ottawa St.

There are many advantages, disadvantages, and diversity of experiences to be had when choosing to work downtown Grand Rapids. What’s your perfect experience while working downtown?

Photos by Autumn Johnson of Bird + Bird Studio.
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